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"History Time": Caroline Emmerton's proud Salem legacy

Posted by Marjorie Nesin  March 2, 2011 10:00 AM

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Caroline Emmerton with students at the Settlement House

Courtesy of The House of the Seven Gables

The letter, printed on lovely stationery with a decorative flourish in the upper corner, may have been slipped into the letter-box, or proffered quietly over refreshments during social visits. In home after home, the recipient would unfold the missive and read a request which, if successful, would change Salem forever.

In 1908 a group of local women whose interests lay in social reform and cultural heritage began a fundraising campaign that, by 1910, crowned their efforts with remarkable success. The result of their efforts, The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association, became an icon of Salem’s dedication to social service, and has been prominent in the city's museum landscape ever since.

In the opening years of the 20th century Salem, Massachusetts, like many American cities, found itself in the midst of a number of dramatic social, economic and demographic changes as the growth of new industry and arrival of new immigrants profoundly altered the city. Many middle- and upper-class residents ramped up efforts to assist the city’s poor and foreign-born. Social service activities such as this were becoming common in many communities.

During the same period, the movement known as the "Colonial Revival" swept the nation. Historic house museums were established, and local history celebrations were widespread. Into this milieu stepped Salem’s own Caroline Emmerton–philanthropist descended from a long line of philanthropists, "New Woman," and historic preservationist. With six female collaborators she crafted, signed, and circulated the fundraising letter.

While there was nothing unique about asking for money for progressive reforms, this letter and its project stood out because of the combination of issues—historic preservation and social service—that the authors explicitly addressed when making their pitch to potential donors.

Settlement work was already underway on behalf of over 200 girls from working-class–often immigrant–Salem families. Inspired by other settlement house projects like Chicago’s Hull House, Salem women had begun to offer free classes in areas such as sewing and home-making to students. Need had outstripped demand, and more resources were needed to serve the girls and their families, many of whom lived in the waterfront neighborhoods.

Sandwiched between the social welfare goals, however, were two paragraphs linking these social service activities with a Colonial Revival and historic preservation agenda. The letter informed readers that the needed settlement work, in one centralized location, would be possible thanks to Emmerton's recent purchase and restoration of Salem’s 17th century Turner mansion. This colonial structure on Derby Street was made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his 19th century novel, "The House of the Seven Gables."

The structure would be used to house social settlement workers, and the ongoing restoration would “restor[e] and appropriately furnish” the home to reflect an earlier era. Historic renovation of the mansion would, in turn, entice visitors whose tourism dollars would help support the settlement work! Brilliant!

Fifteen thousand dollars were needed to cover settlement worker salaries without tapping into the money already promised for the mansion’s restoration. The final line of the letter emphasized the dual mission of the plan: “the committee trusts that this project so full of philanthropic and antiquarian interest will gain a strong support from the public to whom the appeal is now being made.”   

In 2011 The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association celebrated its centennial year; it is still committed to both social change work and preserving and celebrating the history of city, region and nation. In the early twentieth century, Caroline Emmerton and her female collaborators demonstrated unusual business acumen at a time when jobs, political power, votes and legal rights were largely reserved for men.

This is a story of social and economic development at its best, and a legacy of which women and men, in Salem or beyond, should be proud.

Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Coordinator of American Studies at Salem State University in Salem, MA. She is a scholar of social reform, cultural institutions, and theories of community and is a member of the Board of Trustees at the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association. http://www.salemstate.edu/academics/schools/1222.php?id=960.

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